What does it take to fall in love with Alaska?
For some of us, not much. Maybe it’s a job or a spouse that brings us north. Or maybe it’s about stepping off a plane and looking out over the mountains. Perhaps it’s a wilderness experience that seals the deal.
For John Hall, his first glimpse of Alaska came in June 1955. It was then that his father took him at the age of 12 on an Alaskan road trip.
“My dad had a friend in Fairbanks who complained that he couldn’t get fresh eggs,” Hall said. “So Dad bought a truck with 500 egg cases. We followed the truck to Fairbanks in a 1947 Cadillac.”
Hall and his father spent four days in Fairbanks. “Back home in Minnesota, my curfew was when the street lights were on. But in June, in Fairbanks… well. I absolutely loved it,” he said.
Hall fell in love with Alaska so much that he spent his life showing the state for 40 years with his company, John Hall’s Alaska.
I met Hall in the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel, where his team threw a party to celebrate the anniversary. Then Hall and a busload of visitors will spend 19 days seeing the best of Alaska, with stops at Knik River Lodge, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Tok, Whitehorse, Watson Lake…until in Seattle.
It took Hall a few years to return to Alaska. He grew up in the hotel business, as his family owned the Anderson House Hotel in Wabasha, Minnesota.
“It’s the oldest hotel in Minnesota,” Hall said. “It opened in 1856.”
Although Hall’s family sold the hotel, they bought it back 11 years later. Hall quit his job at a hotel management company to renovate the hotel and bring back his “Pennsylvania Dutch” cuisine.
While the hotel was prosperous in the summer, business plummeted in the fall. “We needed to supplement our income,” he said.
So he bought a bus in 1982. After doing some short tours the first year and a longer trip to Florida, Hall said, “I’m going to take these people to Alaska.
Hall’s first trip, in 1983, lasted 31 days. Hall drove west from Minnesota to Seattle, where he rode the Alaska Sea Route to Skagway. From there the group headed north to Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Then it’s off to Denali National Park, Anchorage, Homer, and Seward.
“There were 47 people on the tour and we filled the coach,” Hall said.
Just as Hall’s father raised him at age 12, Hall raised his son, also named John, at age 7.
“My daughter Elizabeth came to Alaska for her 6th birthday,” Hall said.
During the summer months, Hall’s company tours statewide. Some travelers begin or end their trip with a cruise. But Hall also charters ships from Allen Marine in Sitka to offer a cruise-land hybrid excursion. Guests spend a few days in Sitka at a hotel and use the charter boat for day trips. Then the group travels to Juneau by boat, then there are day trips from there, with overnight stays in local hotels.
In his 40 years running tours, Hall has fine-tuned the amenities on his coaches, where guests spend a lot of time. There is a kitchen and toilet and more space between the seats.
Hall also has his children who work in the business: John, Joe and Elizabeth. The team splits up during the winter to do informational presentations in the Lower 48.
John Hall works in Florida during the winter. Hall always stops at The Villages, a well-known retirement community near Orlando. “These people have the time and the money for a trip like ours. It’s a perfect demographic,” he said.
“We don’t sell anything at our parties,” Hall said. “They are strictly informational. I want them to know what to expect, what they will see and do.
Hall encourages travelers to explore other tour options. “You may find that our prices are a bit higher. But we include all meals, all gratuities and admission to all attractions,” he said.
Hall travelers also receive a distinctive blue jacket while traveling. While we were talking at the hotel, two guests came over to say hello in their blue jackets. On the back they had embroidered the years they had toured Alaska. “We have people who have done 10 tours with us,” Hall said.
While Hall’s company offers many itineraries in Alaska, he prefers national park routes.
“I think our national park tours are the gold standard,” he said.
The tour is limited to 26 passengers, due to logistics involving small aircraft. Travelers will see six national parks: Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali, Lake Clark and the Gateway to the Arctic. The tour lasts 14 days, though guests can add a Southeast Alaska cruise and see a seventh park: Glacier Bay.
Hall has no intention of retiring. He’s having too much fun. We talked about landing at Anaktuvuk Pass to see the gates to Arctic National Park. Then there was the time he ate a piece of whale in Utqiagvik. Hall had several stories of how he solved problems when a bridge was washed out or a road was closed.
Still, Hall admits things have changed in 40 years. “I took my son, Joe, on tour with me when he was 8. I was driving and he was serving coffee to guests,” he said. “Today on our 40th anniversary tour , Joe is driving and I’m serving the coffee.”